The Ultimate Day Trip: Traversing the Wilds of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

Young bull stands in front of jeep in Namibia

The teenager stood 10 feet in front of our vehicle, a large branch hanging like a giant frown from his mouth. His ears were spread wide and his trunk, held long and low, tipped up at the end to smell us. He looked and he waited, shifting slightly from one foot to the other. It was clear that he was curious and that he wanted to intimidate, but equally important was his desire to impress Papa G, the giant bull elephant twice his size to our left who was ignoring his performance.

Gertz, our guide and driver, told us to be quiet and not to move. No reason to turn a cheeky bull into an angry one, and after a few moments of giving us the pachyderm version of the stink-eye he sauntered away. With his trunk, he reached towards Papa G’s mouth, a common submissive greeting, but Papa G walked forward as if the young bull didn’t exist. There would be no bromance this morning.

Papa G elephant near Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp
Papa G reaches for leaves above us on the banks of the Hoanib River near camp

As we passed the rejected elephant, he chased the vehicle half-heartedly but did his best to make a show of it with a strong shake of his head. “That’s right people, move along! You’re in my riverbed!” he seemed to say. Still, Papa G remained unimpressed.

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It was sunrise on my third day as a guest of Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in the Palmwag concession of Namibia. We were embarking upon the camp’s signature excursion: a daylong journey to its namesake, the infamous Skeleton Coast—a formidable strip of merciless desert, thousands of miles long that melds with the serrated shores of the Atlantic ocean in the country’s remote northwest.

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(A glimpse of the view driving on the Hoanib Riverbed)

The drive would take 4-5 hours across 40 miles of otherworldly landscapes leading us to the water’s edge. We’d begin by navigating the deep, dry channel of the Hoanib riverbed until we hit the flood plains—an ironic term considering the flood which hit the area two months earlier, was the first in 15 years. From there we’d venture through a sea of sand and the Roaring Dunes, beyond the Klein Oasis and the gravel plains, and then on to the ocean where remnants of decades old shipwrecks still dot its merciless shore.

Two giraffes walk in the flood plains near Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Namibia
Giraffe roam the unusually fertile flood plains on the way to the Skeleton Coast

An hour into the drive we found ourselves grounded, watching Gertz assess a flat tire—not an uncommon occurrence when you’re driving over rocks, tree roots and gravel everyday. The bad news: the wrench he needed to free the spare was missing. After calling for assistance, he inflated the flat tire and told us to get back in the jeep. Help was on its way but with miles of difficult terrain yet to cover, Gertz wanted to continue, albeit handicapped, until the mechanic caught up with us.

Dunes on the way to the Skeleton Coast
Leaving the flood plains, we see the beginning of the dunes

We’d re-inflate three times before help arrived, the second in the flood plains, once cracked and raw, now almost tropical as a result of the flood. Normally, the drive wouldn’t include any stops but the flat tire gave us an excuse to walk around and explore while poor Gertz dealt with the vehicle. Knee deep in flora of all kinds, we watched giraffe, ostrich and springbok meander in the distance, dwarfed by the mountains that rose up behind them.

It was hard to imagine the immense field of green was once bleak and barren, or that no one ever saw a drop of rainfall from the sky. It fell far to the east and then flowed down the Hoanib River through the plains and the dunes until it almost reached the Atlantic Ocean. We heard talk of confused animals staring at the rush of water unable to comprehend what they’d never seen before.

Female elephant in Namibian desert
A frustrated cow begins to look for her calf after it refuses to join her near us

The reality was bittersweet, what looked lush and thriving was living on borrowed time. The heat and lack of water would kill most of the plants in a matter of weeks. They were not endemic to the plains but their seeds had washed down with the flood and taken root. Their leaves, larger than their desert-adapted counterparts, allow too much water to evaporate and would eventually be their death sentence.

Our third and last pit stop was miles beyond the plains at the top of a hill where the dunes begin. Unable to drive any longer, we waited while the camp’s mechanic worked on the tire. To our delight, an entertaining drama unfolded in front of us. A female elephant on her way to a nearby watering hole, stopped 50 feet from our jeep to wait for her calf who was lagging behind.

At first, the cow waited patiently, casually dusting herself with sand and calling to her calf with low, gentle rumbles. As the minutes ticked by she became more impatient for the calf to arrive—Gertz thought perhaps the calf could smell us and was afraid to approach. 

Eventually the cow, exasperated, went looking for the calf who’d turned around and was walking in the opposite direction. The female was not happy. When she caught up with her unruly offspring they “discussed” the situation with great enthusiasm. After numerous stops and starts, trumpets and rumblings, the calf appeared to win the argument for they chose another route to the water.

Once the tire was fixed and we were on our way, we found ourselves high atop a mountain range of butterscotch-colored dunes. Except for the delineation of the bright blue sky, It was hard to tell where one dune ended and the other began, or how far one was from the other.

I began walking towards what I thought was the edge of a ridge but after 5 minutes I still hadn’t reached it. When I turned around and looked behind me, I found that I’d walked a considerable distance downhill. I was completely bewildered, I hadn’t felt the sensation of descent whatsoever.

Boat wreckage along the Skeleton Coast
Mangled remains of an old shipwreck

I made it back to the vehicle huffing and puffing, only to learn that the nearly 100 foot vertical drop in front of us was next on our list of “to-dos.” My heart sank; I imagined the dune collapsing beneath me. It was a foolish thought, the sand held strong and easily supported me as I walked down its steep incline. The others chose to navigate the dune on their behinds, a strategy I opted against for fear I’d be shaking sand out of my pants for the rest of my trip.

Once I reached the bottom, I watched the gang shimmy down the dune. And then it happened: the low resonate hum of a jet plane emanated from the shifting sands. When they stopped, it stopped. I was floored.

Welcome to the Roaring Dunes!

I wish I could give you an easy explanation for the phenomenon, but I can’t. It has something to do with the right amount of humidity, grain size and percentage of silica in conjunction with the amount of sand displaced by their cumulative butts. Frankly, it went over my head. I hope you’ll be content with it simply being a fascinating natural wonder.

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Lunch was served al fresco at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Gazing at the water’s tumultuous ebb and flow, the view was savagely beautiful. Huge jagged rocks jutted out from the water’s surface warning of hidden dangers beneath. And when I looked at the mangled, rusted wreckage of a small boat on the rocks beside us, it was clear how the Skeleton Coast had earned its moniker.

Seals on the shore of the Skeleton Coast
Seals are adorable but oh my, did they smell!

Our adventure was nearing its end but there were still some visual delights yet to be enjoyed. We spent a short time at a small (and slightly creepy) skeleton museum on a desolate street of Mowe Bay and then watched as hundreds of Cape fur seals playing in the surf nearby. While their sweet faces and boundless energy kept us enthralled, the stench from the colony was like a hard slap in the face. My nose burned and I had to breathe through my mouth to avoid retching from the odor.

Aerial view of Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, Namibia

By 4 pm, we found ourselves skimming over the coastline in a small plane headed back to Hoanib. Moving inland, we passed over dunes that rolled and undulated beneath us like liquid gold and then bursting with green, the flood plain came into view.

Soon the familiar twists and turns of the Hoanib River followed, winding its way towards the dark grey mountains that signaled we were almost home. Moments before touch down our last view was of camp, beckoning us home after an exciting, adventure-filled day.

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27 thoughts on “The Ultimate Day Trip: Traversing the Wilds of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

  1. geogypsy2u says:

    What an amazing day and stories and photos to go with the memories. Teenage elephants can be unpredictably feisty. And although the drive became longer due to the tire issue it turned into a bonus to be able to BE in the environment. I’d put this experience on my list if it wasn’t already there.

  2. Jon Gordon says:

    Hi Susan
    Glad to see that you are still traveling to exotic places and making such beautiful and inspired images. Perhaps our paths will cross again. Next year I’m off to Iceland to capture the Aurora Borealis.- my second Iceland trip (I highly recommend it if you haven’t been there).
    Keep shooting!

  3. Laura L. says:

    I wish you’d adopt me. I’d be happy thrown into a piece of luggage. If you were to draw a straight-line graph, of types of lives, you would be marked out to the far right, under the “active adventure” life and I would be your 180 degree opposite. (A long story, but true: for the past 5 months I have lived 99% of the time in a 10×10 basement room. My main excitement is a 2-block trip to the grocery store.) I love just knowing that people can and DO get to have these kinds of adventures. I love reading about it. I like your writing style—it is very comfortable and engaging. And thank gawd you’re such a good photographer, too. I honestly don’t know what is more amazing: the places that you take us to or the fact that YOUR normal life is going to such places. 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Laura – I am sorry to hear that you’ve been confined these last 5 months and hope that it is a temporary situation. I am thrilled that you enjoyed the story and that you like my photos. I have always enjoyed travel and have made it a priority in my life. Others by shoes, I buy tickets, when “real life” and bill paying allow. Thank you so much for your thoughtful commentary and I hope that you return. 🙂

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